December 07, 2020 4 min read
Doug Scott on the 1975 Everest South West Face expedition. Photo: Chris Bonington
We’d arranged to meet in the foyer of Buxton Opera House. There, Doug was discussing with a rather officious lady the finer details of how he wanted to sell books, prints and Nepali goods in the foyer. She was clear that this ‘would be quite unacceptable, a contravention of health and safety, a fire hazard, against policy … ’, and so on. This was her foyer and she was well used to dealing with so-called celebrities and their diva ways.
Doug looked resigned, upset even. She closed her argument: ‘It would impede a hundred people in the event of an evacuation.’ Phil and I, sidekicks, both there in a voluntary capacity, knew how this would end. Just as the lady thought she was getting the better of Doug, he launched his summit bid.
‘What do you mean a hundred? Are you telling me it isn’t sold out?’
Phil and I went for a pint.
We returned to see her carrying tables from the cellar store, and making a neat horseshoe to trap and pen the theatre goers on their way in, way out and on any other journey they dared to take during his Crawling Down the Ogre show.
Doug gave his lecture about mountains. It was entertaining, as usual; I’ve always liked his gag about Chris’s back end collapsing. So enthralled was I that I became trapped in the pen of tables on the way out and bought some knitted socks.
Doug always got his own way, which could be infuriating until you got to know him and you realised a lot of it was just ambitious fun. He liked to push and push; he liked to test the limits. This was the personality which got him up the South West face of Everest in 1975 – and the personality that got him down the Ogre two years later.
Doug always had a way of dealing with stuff, and he was always able to solve a problem. When he started getting the headaches, when he got that tumour, a part of me thought that he was going to sit down in the snow, take off his helmet, scratch his head, put the helmet back on and continue to the summit. But this time he didn’t – he couldn’t, and about this I’m sad.
Doug Scott’s story is very familiar – after all, he told it enough times. He was and is one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers. He was a visionary and incredibly driven – a fatal combination for many, but his intellect, enormous strength and ability to get his own way got him through countless scrapes. I spoke to Chris Bonington about this, and Chris nodded when I suggested that the likes of him and Doug were very, very fit, immensely strong and, in a spot, very determined to survive.
Doug just knew that he could climb well, and climb well at altitude. His experience of being benighted near the summit of Everest changed his perception of what was possible, but equally, leaving the K2 expedition in 1978 after the death of Nick Estcourt showed he also knew what was impossible. He could tell a tale as well. His book Shisha Pangma won the Boardman Tasker Prize in 1984, and I know he was very disappointed not to be shortlisted for the same prize with his autobiography Up and About, definitely a victim of the fallout from his vocal opposition to the upheavals in the British Mountaineering Council. I always found it amusing that the term ‘racist’ was levelled at him on at least one occasion during these arguments. This was in contrast to the Doug I knew, the Doug that saw the poverty in the mountain villages of Pakistan and Nepal and spent decades doing something about it.
I liked visiting Doug at his home in the north Lakes. You could never just call in – there was always a meal, and something new to see. And you never left empty-handed – homegrown vegetables, a print, some prayer flags piled up in the back of the car as I headed home. You also got the feeling that while you’d spent the day there, what you’d gone to do could have been achieved in about twenty minutes: ‘Doug, can you sign this box of books? Oh, sure I’d love to see your new swimming hole.’ For Doug was still on expedition, still away with the boys, pacing himself. The last time I visited, he was at his writing desk, trying to get it all down on paper – literally, no computer in sight. Not unaccustomed to an alpine start, he was usually writing by 4 a.m. – reading, researching and recording all that he’d seen and all that had inspired him. He never did get those last books finished, the second half of his autobiography and the epic that his Kangchenjunga book became. As he said of the Kangchenjunga book: ‘I needed to go back to the beginning to understand why we climbed it, the very beginning, the geology.’
Life renews itself. I took a lot of inspiration from Doug, and I know he influenced many people in his time. I think about him a lot when I pull on those woollen socks.
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